A A four-storey house painted green near the main bus station on the outskirts of Baku is where Roza Huseynova and her children have taken refuge. “Before coming here, I thought there were no good people in this life,” says Huseynova, 38, who escaped an abusive marriage last year.
“But my children and I have learned to feel joy, to laugh,” she says.
The shelter is run by Mehriban Zeynalova, 66. “I would never have received an ID card on my own,” says Huseynova. “My husband would never let me change my children’s school.”
Domestic violence is estimated to account for 5% of crimes in Azerbaijan and femicides are on the rise, but a culture of secrecy means the true statistics are unknown.
“When a woman is beaten, she is expected to remain silent and not reveal her family secrets,” explains Zeynalova.
There is often nowhere to go. In 2010, the law required the creation of state-run shelters, but little happened. The State Committee for Family, Women and Children admits as much, while adding that even most of the 13 charity-run shelters do not meet the proper criteria.
Zeynalova’s house is painted light green, with a garden and walls decorated with cartoon characters. It now houses 60 women and children.
The kitchen and classrooms are on the ground floor with offices for social workers and lawyers above. Women and children have dormitories on the second floor, while the attic has been converted into a play and activity area.
Zeynalova has moved her shelter five times over the years and there have been setbacks. Restrictions on foreign funding for charities and other organizations introduced in 2015 nearly resulted in closure, but Zeynalova borrowed money to buy land and build the first two floors. Then she appealed for help on the shelter’s Facebook page.
“One person brought bricks, another sand, the third wood, etc. “, she says. “I sold my car and some stuff to pay the builders.” In September 2020, the shelter was finished.
Now, the International Organization for Migration is paying staff salaries, while Zeynalova is appealing for donations via Facebook for bills and food. She uses her own pension and the allowance she receives as president of the Azerbaijani Foundation for Assistance to Victims of Human Trafficking.
Zeynalova herself was homeless for seven years, two of them on the streets with two children aged seven and six.
After leaving her abusive husband, she lost all her money to fraud and then the roof over their heads was taken away when the friend the family had stayed with died.
“We stayed with another friend, but one day he had guests and wouldn’t let us in until they left,” she says. “We were outside in the cold, and my daughter asked if we were ever going to turn on our own lights.”
Zeynalova moved her family between the houses of friends and relatives, then they slept in hotel yards or in the entrance halls of apartment buildings. Baku, on the Caspian Sea and licked by the Khazrian icy north wind, is a cold city in winter.
“One day, the door of an entrance hall was not open, the wind was so strong that I kissed the children and I screamed,” she says. “I was so helpless. It was tough times.
Her daughter Elnura, now 33, remembers all the entrances where they hid and the benches where they slept.
“Once, a man invited us to spend a night at his house,” she says. “My mother was afraid, not for her but for us. We barely survived. I could collapse from hunger.
While married, Zeynalova was invited to a meeting of a women’s rights organization but did not dare to go. In 1998, she obtained a position as a project manager in the same group, dealing with domestic violence. She slept in the office with her son, Khalid, but Elnura went to live with her grandmother in Ganja, 300 km west of Baku.
“They put two chairs together and slept on them until mum got her first salary and bought some folding beds,” says her daughter, who will not see her mother for five years.
In 2002, Zeynalova had saved enough for an apartment and sent for Elnura. “For us, it was more than an apartment,” she says. “It was ours.”
But it transformed into more, becoming “Təmiz Dünya” (Clean World), providing shelter for victims of domestic violence and in 20 years has increased helping 650 women and children each year.
“Not only did she get back on her feet, but she helped others. For me, she is an example of remaining human. Even though she tried to do everything on her own, she kept this sense of humanity, her willingness to help,” explains Elnura, legal consultant for the shelter.
Almaz Makhmudova, 44, arrived there last July. She suffered more than 20 years of assaults and insults until the day her husband was arrested for a stabbing and she took her chance to leave.
She is especially grateful for taking care of her children. “Once my husband hit my youngest son, Aydin, and his chin broke. Treatment is ongoing, although we need expensive surgery. Otherwise, when he grows up, he will be disfigured. They have found a good doctor and will also cover the costs.
There is a rehabilitation process for each newcomer and legal, psychological and medical assistance if needed.
“Some are reluctant to talk, withdrawing into themselves,” says Yagut Mammedyarova, 61, a social worker who has worked with Zeynalova for 25 years. “Or, some say one thing the first time we meet and another the next.”
When trust is established and the woman feels stronger, she is helped to find a job.
Afsana Hasanova, 30, started working in a grocery store while staying in the shelter and fighting for justice to order her husband, a gambling addict, to return her three children. She finally made it and Hasanova was able to leave the shelter a few months ago and rent an apartment nearby.
“This refuge is the main reason I survived,” she says. “My mind was a blank sheet of paper when I came here. They gave me a chance to write on this paper again.